Greenbrier turns into shelter for West Virginia flood refugees
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — It could be a month or two until an iconic West Virginia resort reopens after deadly, damaging floods, but its maimed championship golf course may not be ready for play much before the PGA Tour rolls through next July, resort owner Jim Justice said.
The floods that swept through West Virginia last week and killed at least 23 people statewide carved a path of destruction unseen in generations at the historic Greenbrier.
Running through the Old White TPC golf course, Howard’s Creek raged over its banks during the pounding storms Thursday. When the worst of it was over, Greenbrier employees came upon two bodies on the resort grounds and are draining a lake on the 16th fairway to search for more.
Dating back to 1778, the 700-room resort with an iconic white facade has long been one of the jewels of West Virginia’s tourism industry, hosting presidents and royalty and holding a once-secret underground bunker built for Congress in case of nuclear attack during the Cold War.
But on Tuesday, 300 of the neediest victims from the flood-ravaged area occupied the rooms, and the hotel was closed for business while it fed and sheltered the disaster refugees.
"West Virginians are tough, loving, prideful, good people. They’ll bond together, and I’ve said this many times, they’ll get through this," said Justice, the billionaire owner who threw open the place for use as a shelter.
"We won’t forget it, and we’re not supposed to forget it. And we’ll be scarred with it forever, but we’ll survive it, and we’ll figure it out."
Fifteen people died in the resort’s namesake county, where many were swept away by swift, mucky floodwaters. A dead 14-year-old boy washed up against a maintenance shed at the resort, and the body of an elderly man was pulled from a lake on the grounds.
On Tuesday, grandstands set up for a PGA tournament that was supposed to start the week of July Fourth now look out on a muddy, gouged-out golf course strewn with trash, tires, refrigerators and severed trees.
The Old White had been manicured to host some of golf’s biggest names at a tournament starting July 7. The event was going to be free for the first time, and about 300,000 fans were expected. But then the rains began, and the water rose and kept rising.
On Thursday evening, pro golfer Bubba Watson, who has a home at the resort, tweeted a video that showed the course had become a flowing river of brown water.
After the rain stopped, Justice checked out a high-water mark on the 15th hole, a record set in 1915. This flood topped it by 5 feet.
The tournament has been canceled.
The Greenbrier’s newly built chapel was filled with 4 feet of mud. At the tennis complex, mud coated a few levels of seats around the year-old center court. Water spilled into several areas of the resort’s main building.
The golf course suffered extensive damage.
"In all honesty, the course will probably have to be completely redone," Justice said.
The Greenbrier is also set to host the New Orleans Saints’ training camp starting in late July. The NFL team said it is still coming.
Justice, a coal and agriculture magnate who is the Democratic nominee for governor in November, has put the campaign on hold for at least two weeks.
"Honest to Pete, that’s the last thing that I need to be doing today," he said.
Instead of campaign checks, money to help the victims is starting to roll in. Justice’s flood-relief charity, Neighbors Loving Neighbors, has received $600,000 in commitments in just a few days, include five-figure pledges from former NBA star and West Virginia native Jerry West, Rite Aid and a FirstEnergy executive, he said.
As they grabbed a free lunch Tuesday, flood victims staying at the Greenbrier said they were grateful.
Kenneth Hoke, 45, fled his home Thursday in Monroe County to stay at the Greenbrier with his wife, Melanie. By the time he left, water had crept up to the bottom of the stairs and was rising quickly. He hasn’t been home since.
"We were hit pretty hard in the hollow," Hoke said. "We lost everything we had."